Sick­ies un­mask of­fices

Work­place cul­ture and man­age­ment prac­tices can de­ter­mine sick leave taken, writes So­phie Toomey

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career One -

SICK­IES, or men­tal health days as they are fondly known, are embed­ded in the Aus­tralian ver­nac­u­lar and cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to re­cent sta­tis­tics the prac­tice still widely ex­ists.

A sur­vey by re­cruit­ment com­pany Ta­lent2 has found 40 per cent of Aus­tralian em­ploy­ees feel vin­di­cated tak­ing a day off ev­ery now and then just for them­selves. They don’t think four weeks’ an­nual leave and manda­tory 10 days of per­sonal leave enough, and 43 per cent of em­ploy­ees said they had in­deed taken a sick day rather than take a day from an­nual leave.

Though some re­search may cre­ate the im­age of an ex­plod­ing ‘‘ sickie’’ cul­ture, there are al­ways two sides to a story. A 2005 Ca­reerone study found 65 per cent of Aus­tralians go to work when sick, and 46 per cent of those who did take time off work spend it feel­ing guilty. Younger peo­ple are more likely to feel guilty about tak­ing time off, most likely re­lated to the fact that 68 per cent of them use the time to ‘‘ hang out’’ with fam­ily and friends, or go shop­ping.

Lawyer Si­belle Thomas works part-time and says that she in­evitably feels guilty about tak­ing sick days. ‘‘ My boss has said to me when I have called in sick ‘ can’t you get sick on your days off?’ He knows I have young kids and an­other job, and that means no days off — but he re­sents that since I am only with him two days a week that one of them is spent not work­ing.’’

Thomas says she has only taken six days off in six years, and has spent those try­ing to do what work she can from home. ‘‘ I have fre­quently gone to work when sick, even with a se­ri­ous and con­ta­gious flu. I would never take a sick day for re­cre­ation. I couldn’t bear the guilt.’’

In­ter­est­ingly, 75 per cent of those sur­veyed by Ta­lent2 said they would rather their col­leagues stayed home when sick.

Cherie Cur­tis, or­gan­i­sa­tional psy­chol­o­gist with re­cruit­ment and work­place so­lu­tions com­pany Onetest says it’s im­por­tant em­ploy­ees re­mem­ber that when they are gen­uinely sick, they are al­lowed to take time off and rest. ‘‘ Feel­ings of guilt re­late di­rectly back to the kind of re­la­tion­ships they have at work, pre­dom­i­nantly with man­age­ment.’’

While there are those who spend their sick days get­ting a sun­tan, a study con­ducted by psy­chol­o­gists at Onetest found for many, sick days are taken to recharge or at­tend to un­fin­ished ‘‘ per­sonal ad­min’’.

‘‘ A lot of sick­ies aren’t taken to re­lax on a beach. but to ful­fill com­mit­ments,’’ Cur­tis says, ‘‘ run­ning house­hold er­rands and look­ing af­ter sick fam­ily mem­bers are among the main rea­sons peo­ple take a ‘ sickie’.’’

But there are other, more com­plex mo­ti­va­tions for sick­ies. Dis­sat­is­fac­tion at work emerges as the pri­mary rea­son for il­le­git­i­mate sick days.

Says Cur­tis, ‘‘ A study by Gallup found the sin­gle big­gest rea­son peo­ple take sick leave is man­age­ment. Peo­ple tend to take ‘ sick­ies’ when they are un­happy at work or don’t feel re­warded. They may not want to face their boss, co-worker or think it won’t be no­ticed. Oth­ers are too stressed to go to work, or they may want to avoid a dead­line.’’

Cur­tis says tak­ing time out be­comes a per­ceived way of re­dress­ing an im­bal­ance or sense of dis­em­pow­er­ment. ‘‘ Em­ploy­ees who don’t feel well treated or ap­pre­ci­ated take it upon them­selves to make things bal­anced. Their

‘ at­ti­tude be­comes ‘ I de­serve it’ or ‘ I’m owed it’, so they feel jus­ti­fied in tak­ing a day off.’’

Cur­tis says that, pre­dictably, sick days are most com­monly taken at cer­tain ‘‘ crunch times’’ of the year, pe­ri­ods when stress and dead­lines are at a pre­mium. ‘‘ Peo­ple will take sick days at the end of the fi­nan­cial year and also at times when it’s more ac­cept­able gen­er­ally to be sick. It won’t be so no­tice­able then.’’

It’s of­ten a work­place cul­ture that dic­tates sick leave taken. Cur­tis says the strong­est pre­dic­tor of the amount of sick leave an em­ployee will take is the amount of sick leave taken by co-work­ers. ‘‘ The amount of sick leave oth­ers take es­tab­lishes what is con­sid­ered nor­mal, or ex­pected, in that work place.’’

Cur­tis says re­search shows that work­ers com­monly don’t get sick when they start a new job. She ex­plains that this is not be­cause they mag­i­cally stop get­ting ill. ‘‘ It takes time to fig­ure out what is the norm in that work­place, and they learn it by watch­ing what hap­pens when some­one else takes a sickie. If there are no con­se­quences, the door for sick­ies is seen to be le­git­i­mately opened. If peo­ple take 15 days a year be­fore the man­age­ment ques­tions it, then that is how many peo­ple will take.’’

Cur­tis be­lieves that com­pa­nies can only keep lev­els of sick leave low by us­ing both the ‘‘ car­rot’’ and the ‘‘ stick’’ approach, com­bin­ing in­cen­tives and reper­cus­sions. She stresses that it is of­ten an or­gan­i­sa­tion’s cul­ture that cre­ates the de­sire for ex­ces­sive leave. ‘‘ If em­ploy­ees are averse to go­ing to work be­cause they have an ag­gres­sive man­ager or abu­sive co-work­ers, or they are rou­tinely faced with de­mands they feel un­able to meet, then the at­trac­tion of the stress day is go­ing to be very high. In short, im­prove con­di­tions and em­ploy­ees will be pro­vided with a dis­in­cen­tive for time off.’’

Juliet Bourke, a part­ner at Aequus Part­ners, re­searches di­ver­sity and flex­i­bil­ity and says that a lat­eral approach must be taken to sick leave. ‘‘ En­abling greater work­place flex­i­bil­ity has been shown in re­search to re­sult in lower lev­els of un­planned ab­sences. If em­ploy­ees can plan a morn­ing off to meet a trades­man they won’t dis­guise the ab­sence by tak­ing a ‘ sickie’.

On the ‘‘ car­rot’’ side, Andrew Lovell of Leo Bur­nett Ad­ver­tis­ing says his ex­pe­ri­ence ties in with re­search find­ings. ‘‘ We have found that if there is flex­i­bil­ity and open di­a­logue with a su­per­vi­sor or man­age­ment then sick leave is rarely abused and the need to po­lice it is di­min­ished.’’ In ad­di­tion to flex­i­bil­ity, em­ploy­ees are re­warded with a day off on their birth­day. ‘‘ That’s on the pro­viso that man­ag­ing their work com­mit­ments en­ables them to do that.’’

On the ‘‘ stick’’ side, Cur­tis says com­pa­nies can have a pol­icy of re­quir­ing em­ploy­ees to be for­mally ac­count­able for even one day of sick leave. ‘‘ Em­ploy­ers can de­mand a cer­tifi­cate for one day if it’s clearly in their pol­icy. En­forc­ing that pol­icy will re­duce sick leave.’’

Work­place lawyer Joy­deep Hor of Harmer’s work­place lawyers says such a pol­icy is le­gal. ‘‘ Sick leave is for those who are gen­uinely ill, and it is set out in the Work­place Re­la­tions Act that em­ploy­ers can ask em­ploy­ees to ac­count for time taken as sick leave and de­mand cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Many don’t.’’

Lovell says that Leo Bur­nett’s sick leave pol­icy is clear on doc­tors’ cer­tifi­cates, but that the pro­vi­sions aren’t strictly ad­hered to be­cause they have found it un­nec­es­sary. ‘‘ Our for­mal writ­ten pol­icy on sick leave is to re­quire a doc­tor’s cer­tifi­cate af­ter two days of sick leave, but this is gen­er­ally not en­forced. We might re­quire it af­ter an ex­tended leave to en­sure that an em­ployee has doc­tor’s per­mis­sion to re­turn to work, or for the pur­poses of in­sur­ance claims.’’

Lovell says that in spite of their work­ing in a high de­mand and of­ten high-stress in­dus­try, they have rarely had prob­lems with ex­cess ab­sen­teeism. ‘‘ If it does hap­pen we give pri­or­ity to find­ing out what is driv­ing it. If it’s valid then we try to re­solve the is­sues, med­i­cal or oth­er­wise. That might mean flexible work­ing hours, ex­tended leave or pro­vid­ing re­source sup­port.’’

Hor says that where ex­ces­sive ab­sences are a prob­lem, an em­ployer is en­ti­tled to ne­go­ti­ate an at­ten­dance man­age­ment plan. ‘‘ If you have some­one who has taken 40 sick days in six months you might put them on a plan of no more than 10 days’ leave in the fol­low­ing six months.’’ Hor says how­ever in cases like this there are broader con­sid­er­a­tions. ‘‘ You would want to know why they are away so much. You have to think of health and safety obli­ga­tions and whether work is con­tribut­ing to their ill­ness.’’

Hor says there are some com­mon mis­con­cep­tions and stresses that em­ploy­ees should be clear on what their en­ti­tle­ments are. ‘‘ You can’t ac­crue sick leave, or get paid for it when you leave. Nor is it le­gal for com­pa­nies to trade off sick leave pro­vi­sions for higher pay or other bonuses.’’ A cer­tain amount of sick leave is manda­tory. ‘‘ Un­der Work Choices, what used to be called sick leave is now per­sonal leave and com­bines sick leave and carer’s leave. Ten days a year is the le­gal min­i­mum for that, but it is pro­rata for part-timers and not avail­able to ca­sual work­ers.’’

Hor ex­plains that em­ploy­ers are en­ti­tled to con­sider ter­mi­nat­ing an em­ployee if their ex­ces­sive ab­sence is af­fect­ing their abil­ity to do the job. ‘‘ There have been cases where em­ploy­ers have been suc­cess­ful in sack­ing em­ploy­ees for this rea­son, on the ba­sis that their ab­sence af­fected their abil­ity to do their job. It is more com­mon in blue-col­lar in­dus­tries like con­struc­tion.’’

Lovell says they have had very lim­ited ex­pe­ri­ence with abuse of sick leave, some­thing he at­tributes di­rectly to the com­pany’s cul­ture. ‘‘ Be­cause of the col­lab­o­ra­tive na­ture of how we work, the em­ployee would not only be let­ting them­selves down but their team and we like to think our cul­ture dis­cour­ages this be­hav­iour. If there is an abuse of the sys­tem then we warn about it, and in­di­vid­u­als gen­er­ally lift their game.’’

Pic­ture: Jane Demp­ster

Car­rot’ pol­icy: Andrew Lovell says work­places need open­ness

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.